Americans' Spiritual Growth Hunt Being Swept Up in a `New Wave'

Article excerpt

First of a three-part series

On a recent Friday in Georgetown, lunch-hour visitors filled Grace Episcopal Church to hear Bill Henegan speak on spirituality in a rat-race world.

"I was making tons of money," says the 49-year-old former marketing executive. His priorities began to shift, he says, after the day in 1991 when he watched a Seattle sunset and heard the booming voice of God.

"You're not going to do this much longer," the voice said.

Two years ago, Mr. Henegan finally dived into what he believes is his true calling, as a spiritual healer, founding an institute called "Innerwork."

The talk by the Virginia husband and father was the ninth in a yearlong Friday series at Grace Church. The lectures feature traditional Christian and Jewish speakers, says the Rev. David Bird, the rector, and also "those who are in the new wave of religion."

That wave seems to be crashing across America, though, to be sure, many Americans recoil from the wave, regarding it as "goo-goo," more sentiment than substance, feel-good sentiments that make no real demands on either intellect or heart.

But in an era when loyalty to doctrines and denominations has waned, a new American behavior called spiritual seeking has surged. Its quarry is personal experience, the sacred, the soul.

It occasionally includes a return to the "spiritual classics," works from all great religions. Far more often it focuses on healing, health or mental peace as opposed to assurance of eternal salvation - or escape from its flip side, damnation.

Like Mr. Henegan's "Innerwork," the new spiritual mood is changing American religion in many internal ways. Externally, the map of U.S. religious life has stayed remarkably consistent for the past 50 years.

More than eight in 10 Americans claim Christian affiliation - a quarter each Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant, and 8 percent black churches. Two percent are Jewish, about 8 percent say they are "other," and another 8 percent say their religious affiliation is "none."

"There's slight growth in the evangelical side and slight decline in the mainline Protestant side," says Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago School of Divinity.

Four in 10 Americans claim to have attended church or synagogue in a given week, a rate that has stayed about the same for 50 years. Similarly, the "unchurched," those who have not been in a sanctuary for worship in six months, have remained at about four in 10 in the same period.

Despite the appearance of stability, many observers argue that something is about to give way in religious life. Change likely will become most pronounced in the black church and in places were immigration is heaviest. Spiritual seeking - with its emphasis on individualism, choice and quest for meaning - also will exert profound changes on traditional religion.

SPIRITUAL, NOT RELIGIOUS

"The spiritual quest culture is permeating the whole scene," says sociologist Wade Clark Roof, who completed a decade of surveys of the religion of baby boomers. "The seekers are not only `out there.' They're also people who go to church."

A recent report, "The Next American Spirituality," done by pollster George Gallup Jr., reveals Americans' spiritual thoughts and activities over a 24-hour period.

One-third had a roller-coaster day of spiritual highs and lows. Thirty percent felt "indescribable joy" during their day. Nearly 40 percent had opened a Bible, and 60 percent had felt part of God's plan.

Yet the biggest response was to the word "spiritual." Nearly 80 percent expressed a desire to "experience spiritual growth." Mr. Gallup says that embrace of the "S" word over the "R" word should not come as a surprise. For several decades now, most Americans have said religion will decline. Now more than ever, 80 percent agree that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue. …